05/21/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Don't Spit Into the Wind

Jim Croce must never have been big at Toyota, so just to remind everyone of the great refrain:

"Don't tug on Superman's cape
You don't spit into the wind
You don't pull the mask off the old Lone Ranger
And you don't mess around with Jim."

Now Jim could be replaced with NHTSA, or any number of State Attorney Generals, or the US Congress, but one thing is for sure: Toyota is at the beginning of a long journey they decided to lengthen.

Perhaps it was 8 years of a Republican very pro-business administration or an agency not noted for the regulatory zeal of its sister agencies (e.g., EPA, IRS), but I know of few corporations that apparently have worked as hard as Toyota to embarrass a regulatory agency. If the news reports are accurate, Toyota flaunted in internal emails their success in saving $100 million by avoiding a big recall in 2007 over unintended acceleration (see Ken Thomas at the Huffington Post). Best to keep such chest puffing to oneself or to those in attendance at a meeting, NEVER emails.

The US has 50 governors-in-waiting -- they are called Attorney Generals.

One of the little noticed results of the tobacco litigation is that the 50 Attorney Generals learned how to coordinate and pull resources. The AGs are probably holding back because the Toyota affair is muddied by many of the more recent, potentially questionable public claims of problems (e.g, the Prius and the California Highway Patrol) and a fear of lost jobs. Once again Toyota is making life easy (easy for AGs; hard for Toyota). The op-ed by Bob Herbert in the NYT laid out a very good case for anger at Toyota in closing a major facility in California. Losing a plant in a state takes the cuffs off an energetic AG.

In another world and time, hell brought no greater fury than an angry Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich -- his wrath is legendary. But a quick read of the news on the exchange between Rep. Dingell (no longer head of the Committee) and Jim Lentz, president and chief operating officer of Toyota's U.S. operations, pretty much shows Toyota did not come to the table prepared to answer very basic questions (e.g, "Please tell me the date that Toyota first heard of incidents of sudden acceleration in its vehicles"). But why just talk about Rep. Dingell, the new Committee Chair is Rep. Henry Waxman, D-CA -- remember the California plant Toyota is closing?

I note for all readers that none of the above discusses whether there really is a problem. As all Washingtonians know -- it's not the crime, but the cover-up that makes something exciting. So I remind those people at Toyota, who may not be familiar with Jim Croce, of a Japanese Proverb: You don't have to die -- Heaven and Hell are in this world, too.